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Literature / Murder on the Leviathan

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Murder on the Leviathan (Russian: Левиафан, "Leviathan"), is a 1998 Russian novel by Boris Akunin. It is the third novel in the popular Erast Fandorin mystery series.

The novel is set in 1878. It starts with a horrible crime in Paris: Lord Littleby, collector of rare Indian antiquities, was murdered, his skull caved in by someone wielding a statue of Shiva. Worse, all seven of Lord Littleby's servants and two children of the servants are also murdered, poisoned by injections. French police inspector Gustave Gauche has one vital clue: left at the scene of the crime was a first-class passenger pin from a cruise ship, the Leviathan, en route to Suez and the East.

Gauche boards the ship in order to catch the murderer, and finds a colorful array of suspects. They include:

  • Reginald Milford-Stokes, a scatterbrained English aristocrat, who lacks his first class pin
  • Renate Kleber, pregnant, wife of a Swiss banker, also lacks her pin
  • Gintaro Aono, Japanese, does not have his pin, reluctant to say anything about himself except that he's a soldier in the army
  • Clarissa Stamp, an unmarried older English woman, doesn't have a pin, has been spending a lot of money of late
  • Truffo, ship's doctor, who would have expertise in injections
  • Anthony Sweetchild, expert in Indian antiquities such as statues of Shiva
  • Our hero, Erast Petrovich Fandorin, a young Russian man en route to a diplomatic post in Japan, lacks his first-class pin

Unfortunately it turns out that Gauche is a terrible detective, a hopeless bumbler. His various hypotheses are continually shot down by a far, far more competent detective—Fandorin, who eventually is forced to find the killer himself.

Provides examples of:

  • Author Appeal: Before hitting it big as a novelist Boris Akunin was a professional Russian-Japanese translator. With the character of Aono, one of the suspects in this novel, Akunin introduces Japanese culture and tropes into the Fandorin series.
  • Big Secret: half the characters either have this or seem like it (which is enough to throw off the investigation).
  • Bittersweet Ending: Several of the main protagonists end up dead, one is gravely wounded, not counting ten victims of the murder that sets the whole plot in motion. The perpetrator is captured but the plan was so meticulous that the mastermind is supposed to get off with a short prison term, also, the goal of the perpetrator, a fortune in gems, is possibly lost forever. But at least Fandorin's going have a lot of sex with Clarissa in Calcutta.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Gintaro Aono, about him being a doctor and his missing scalpel. This got him arrested, though he was released pretty quickly thanks to Fandorin's intervention.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The big ugly clock that Born Lucky Fandorin wins, and repeated references thereafter to how the clock has a narrow base and is prone to wobbling dangerously as the boat rocks in the waves. At the climax the clock falls over on Marie Sanfon and saves Fandorin's life.
  • Chocolate Baby: One of Marie Sanfon's scams, as recounted by Gauche. Her accomplice was a doctor at the home of a wealthy noble German family, when the mistress of the house popped out a Chocolate Baby. The humiliated husband paid Sanfon to acquire a newborn white child. Only after Sanfon had done so and left did the German aristocrat recognize a birthmark on the child and realize that it actually was his.
  • Closed Circle: The various suspects in a murder investigation, on a passenger ship together, even (at the insistence of Gauche) dining together in the same first-class salon.
  • Covering Up Your Gray: Clarissa Stamp alternatingly dyes or plucks her grey hair to conceal the fact that she is a lot older than she publicly lets on. This is because she has recently escaped an abusive relationship carrying over from an extremely sheltered childhood, so she has the social experience of a young debutante and is extremely insecure about her real age.
  • Crime After Crime: The villains first killed ten people in Paris to steal the MacGuffin, then killed a professor onboard the luxury liner Leviathan when he got dangerously close to the truth, then, when the investigation began to catch on, decided to just sink the ship with all the passengers.
  • Dead All Along: Emily, recipient of letters written by Reginald Milford-Stokes, is actually dead. There are several clues related to this death before the denouement.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The POV characters express a multitude of nationalistic, racist, and classist views. One can assume these were fairly commonplace in the late 19th century. In particular:
    • Many characters mock Gintaro Aono (mentally or aloud) for being Asian.
    • Meanwhile, Aono casually mentions in his diary that his future bride is thirteen and they'll get married in a year or two, maybe sooner.
    • Clarissa Stamp is mocked for being an Old Maid, and Gauche implies she is Defiled Forever after being seduced and abandoned in Paris.
    • Everyone easily believes Marie Sanfon's lie about getting attacked by a Scary Black Man.
  • Deliberately Distressed Damsel: Renata Kleber gets into trouble on purpose in hopes of starting a Rescue Romance with Fandorin, who seems to uphold chivalric values.
  • Femme Fatale: Marie Sanfon, who strings several men along and gets them to do her bidding.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • A fair amount of hints that something is very wrong with Reginald—he says he has to take medicine to calm himself down, and Renate thinks of him as the "Ginger Lunatic" and notes how he is disheveled and twitchy at breakfast. In a letter to Emily he says that he's committed a terrible crime but can't remember what it is.
    • There are also a couple of hints in Gauche's narrative that he doesn't have a lot of money and is not happy about it.
  • First Gray Hair: Clarissa Stamp has a moment like this, and it is implied to not be the first time. She rips it out but is immediately ashamed of herself being in denial about her age.
  • French Jerk: Gustave Gauche, generally obnoxious and overbearing and full of himself. He makes a special point of humiliating Clarissa Stamp by telling the whole group of how a cad romanced her and ripped her off in Paris.
  • Freudian Excuse: Lampshaded by Gustave Gauche and used by Renier.
  • Funny Foreigner: Gintaro Aono seems to be this, partly because of his ludicrous accent; it's handily subverted in the parts of the novel that are written from his point of view, though. Also lampshaded, as he realizes that he can use his status of Funny Foreigner (a 'wild Asian' as he puts it) to appear in his loose and light traditional Japanese garb, much better suited to the scorching heat than woolen European suits all other upper-class men are obliged to wear.
  • Goodbye, Cruel World!: The villain's confession seems to be this at first.
  • Inspector Lestrade: Fandorin runs rings around poor Gauche, who can't get anything right.
  • In the Style of: Several books in the Fandorin series find Boris Akunin writing In The Style Of various iconic mystery authors. This one, with a closed circle of upper-class characters as suspects in a murder, is an obvious nod to Agatha Christie, specifically Death on the Nile.
  • Japanese Ranguage: Aono refers to Lord Littleby as "Rord Ritterby".
  • Karma Houdini: Marie Sanfon. She did lose the treasure, and she will serve a short prison term for shooting Aono. But as Fandorin admits, he can't actually prove anything, so she'll escape punishment for 12 murders.
  • The Killer in Me: Amnesiac version. Lord Milford-Stokes accidentally killed his wife through dangerous driving, went insane as a result and has internalised the story: he recounts it as though it happened to someone else and turns violent when confronted with the truth. This isn't a major part of the story and is not a revelation to the other characters, but is to the reader.
  • MacGuffin: That Indian shawl, which turns out to be a treasure map.
  • The Man Behind the Man: Marie Sanfon behind Lieutenant Renier, pulling the strings all along.
  • Market-Based Title: Leviafan was initially directly translated as Leviathan, but for the paperback was changed to Murder on the Leviathan in a possible case of Viewers Are Morons. There were already several books titled Leviathan on the English market, so this was likely done to avoid confusion that could hamper sales.
  • Noble Bigot with a Badge: Gustave Gauche, though the 'noble' part failed to stand up to the test in the end.
  • Picked Flowers Are Dead: Clarissa says that she hates picked flowers and won't let anyone give her a bouquet, which makes a sarcastic Renata think that no doubt lots of men are trying to give flowers to a middle-aged spinster.
  • Sarcastic Clapping: Fandorin does this after Renate spins her story about how she killed Gauche because he was trying to kill her.
    "Bravo!" said Fandorin with a mocking smile, still clapping his hands. "Bravo, Mme. Kleber. You are a great actress!"
  • Sherlock Scan: One scene has Fandorin showing off his Sherlock Scan skills by diagnosing random passerby, for the amusement of Miss Stamp. He is able to figure out that one man standing at the railing is a wealthy businessman and a newlywed on the passage through Suez for the first time and also at the brink of bankruptcy.
  • Summation Gathering:
  • Switching P.O.V.: Bounces back and forth between several of the suspects, as well as Gauche, but never Fandorin himself.
  • Sword Cane: Fandorin reveals the sword inside his walking stick as the gang goes to arrest Renier.
  • Ten Little Murder Victims: A variation: Gauche believes that the murderer he was chasing after was somewhere on the large ship, and made sure to have his primary suspects assigned to the same salon to keep an eye on them. Then played straight when one of those suspects was killed too.
  • Third-Person Person: Part of Gauche's French Jerk persona is an irritating habit of referring to himself as "Papa Gauche" when he's being particularly arrogant.
  • Toplessness from the Back: Discussed Trope, in which Renate, who believes that "an open neck and a bare back" are the best way to seduce a man, deliberately engineers this in an attempt to seduce Fandorin. He is supremely uninterested.
  • Undesirable Prize: Fandorin won a huge ugly wooden clock that won't fit into his room in a lottery, much to his own horror. It saved his life.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Several in Murder on the Leviathan (not quite narrators in 3 out 5 cases, but the perspective shifts to them and the unreliability is there), but especially Lord Milford-Stokes, who turns out to be deranged, and Renate Kleber, whose POV chapters do not reveal that she is the Big Bad.
  • Vehicle Title: In the original Russian, anyway, as the book was called Leviathan after the ship.
  • Villain of Another Story: Fandorin offhandedly mentions that one of the passengers, a tea trader called Étienne Boileau, has the tattoo of a Hong Kong triad on his wrist, which means that he is actually a dangerous criminal and an opium trader. However, he has nothing to do with the murders, and basically disappears from the plot after that.